Newly established NYU Shanghai - the first set up jointly by Chinese and US universities - has made headlines, but also prompted questions about the significance for education on the mainland of such joint-venture institutions.
Its more than 2,500 universities have long been criticised for lacking world-class faculties and graduates. Authorities and scholars hope collaborations between local and foreign universities can be a catalyst for the sector.
From next month until the end of the year, high school graduates can apply for admission to NYU Shanghai - established by New York University and East China Normal University - with the first classes starting next September, NYU Shanghai said last Monday.
NYU president John Sexton said NYU Shanghai's unique selling point for mainland students was that it offered a first-rate American university education close to home. "NYU Shanghai is part of New York University," he said. "In your class, you have students from around the world and you can go to these places [where NYU has a network campus]."
Students will be sent to other NYU campuses around the world for up to three semesters. Upon graduation, they will receive degrees from both NYU and NYU Shanghai.
NYU Shanghai chancellor Yu Lizhong, East China Normal University's former president, said the goal was to cultivate students with international horizons and an inquiring, creative spirit.
Sexton said students would be required to master English because classes would be taught in the language. The curriculum would be designed by NYU and would not be subject to intervention by mainland education authorities. He said the university would be "autonomous" and that the management structure was in line with that of NYU.
The university plans to admit 300 students next year, with 51 per cent from the mainland. Mainland students will have to pass the country's university entrance examination and pay 100,000 yuan (HK$124,000) a year in tuition fees. Overseas students will have to pay 300,000 yuan, the Shanghai Youth Daily reported.
NYU Shanghai will offer 11 majors next year, including biological engineering, computer science and finance, but most students will spend their first two years receiving a general education.
NYU Shanghai, partly funded by the municipal government and located in the Lujiazui financial centre, is the latest example of the surge in overseas universities forming partnerships in China. Encouraged by the central government, the number of joint-venture institutes and programmes has risen from 712 in 2002 to 1,594 today, the Ministry of Education said on its website.
East China Normal University professor Wu Zunmin said he and other scholars would be keeping a close eye on NYU Shanghai's development to see if it could be a catalyst for reform of tertiary education.
Domestic universities were beset by corruption and plagiarism, he said, and campuses were run like bureaucracies.
The education ministry said such joint ventures would bring advanced educational concepts and teaching methods to "boost the vigour of domestic education reform".
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said existing universities with foreign partners had so far recruited only middling students. Their foreign partners had little input and the campuses looked no different to domestic counterparts in terms of teaching and management.
"[Before NYU Shanghai,] these joint ventures were still in the system, managed by the education authorities," he said. The universities had no autonomy in enrolling students, designing curriculums, management or conferring degrees, he said.
In recent years, more high school graduates had been opting to study at overseas universities. In Shanghai's key high schools, fewer than half the students sat the mainland's university entrance exam, opting instead to seek admission to top overseas universities, the China Youth Daily reported.
Zhang Junwei, a manager at a foreign manufacturer in Shanghai who has a 12-year-old son, said she was interested in NYU Shanghai as she did not want her son to study abroad. "I hope my son can study at a university in China to learn more about traditional culture and Chinese society," she said.
But Carol Cao, an accountant, said her family had decided that her 15-year-old daughter would be better off not going to NYU Shanghai. "I want her to study at a university with a long history, but NYU Shanghai has just come into being," she said. "What's more, I am not sure how it will actually be run and I don't want my daughter to be an experiment."
Chu Zhaohui, from the National Institute of Education Sciences, said it was not a good idea to rely on joint-venture institutions to drive mainland university reform. It was high time the system was overhauled to let universities be run the way they should be run, he said.